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Simplifying mass and strength training for beginners

They said that you could train like me from day one? Ha!

Unlike regular articles I will begin this one by straight away giving you a workout routine to add size and strength. You should do this routine if you cannot do the following by yourself in proper form-

  • Bench press 200 pounds for 10 reps
  • Squat 315 pounds for 10 reps
  • Deadlift 330 pounds for 10 reps

Do workout A and workout B alternately on 3 alternate days a week-

Workout A
Squats                                                 3 sets of 5-10 reps
Bench press                                         3 sets of 5-10 reps
Barbell row                                          3 sets of 6-10 reps
Standing calf raises (optional)                2 sets of 20 reps

Workout B
Deadlift                                               2-3 sets of 5-10 reps
Military press                                      3 sets of 6-8 reps
Weighted pull up                                 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Lying triceps extensions                       2 sets of 8 reps
Barbell curl                                          2 sets of 8 reps

For all exercises rest about 2-3 minutes between sets

Start with the lower rep range for each exercise, then with the same weight work upto the upper rep range. Then increase the weight and drop back to the lower rep range and work your way upto the upper rep range again with the heavier weight. Your goal is to try to ultimately work upto the weights mentioned earlier for the bench, squats, and deads for 10 reps. 

Oops! There must be some mistake, that surely did not look like a pro bodybuilder’s routine. The above mentioned routine does not look like it can add any real size or strength. I think the "internet experts" and various magazines might have you expecting a routine similar to this-

Day 1 (chest, shoulders and triceps)
Machine bench presses-4x12-15
Cable crossover-4x15
Incline dumbbell presses-4x12-15   
Pec dec-3x15
Lateral raises-3x12
Dumbbell shoulder press-3x12
Lying triceps extensions-3x15
Cable1 arm extension-3x15

Day 2 (back and biceps)
Barbell rows-4x12-15
Seated cable rows-4x15
T bar rows-3x15
Concentration curls-3x12
Cable preacher curls-3x12-15
Incline dumbbell curl-3x12

Day 3 (legs)
Leg press-4x15-20
Leg extension-4x15
Narrow stance hack squats-4x12-15
Lying leg curls-4x12-15
Standing leg curls-3x15
Standing calf raises-3x25-50
Seated calf raises-3x20

Now that I look at the second routine, I must admit that the first one looks kind of boring when compared to it. I mean look at how many exercises one can do in the second routine as compared to the old fashioned looking first one. It surely looks like a program that a pro bodybuilder would do. And if you think so then I agree that you might be right! However the problem is that as a beginner……… you are still a beginner!

If I were to take a guess, then I would say that the average pro bodybuilder would be able to atleast lift something like this-

  • Bench press 300 pounds for 10 reps
  • Squat 450 reps for 8-10 reps
  • Deadlift 450 pounds for 8-10 reps

Why do I only refer to those 3 damn exercises, and not the amounts lifted in curls, leg presses, etc? Here is why, ask any pro bodybuilder to talk about his strength and you can be rest assured that he will talk about his performances in one of those 3 major lifts. Why is that so? It is so because those 3 lifts made him work the hardest, gave him the most results and had the best carryover strength effect to the other secondary exercises. I mean there is a reason why those 3 are called primary or major exercises. Of course chin ups, rows, military presses are also major compound exercises. However in my experience I have seen most pros talk about their bench, squats and deads most often, thus I mentioned the numbers for those 3.

Mass building requires heavy weights

The unfortunate problem with most beginners is that they will invariably compare themselves to seasoned pros and try to do what the pros do at their advanced levels. Tell me honestly, would you want to compete in your very first MMA fight against Brock Lesnar? I don’t think so, then why should that be the approach to size and strength goals? Let me tell you that your success in getting bigger and stronger will lie a great deal in simplifying your program. Infact most top bodybuilders if not all stuck to some very simple programs for the first few years of their training career before moving onto more advanced workouts.

Here are some arguments that are given against simple looking programs like the one that I have shared-

1) The routine has very few exercises- you know what if you want then I can give you atleast 10 exercises for each and every muscle group in your body to do. Will that help you? Not really! Training for mass and strength is a serious matter which involves a lot of dedication. You should not bother with new exercises until you have got good with the current ones. Doing too many exercises without getting good at any, will just make you go through the motions after a point and not gain anything out it. I mean I would any day prefer to do squats for 5x5 with 400 pounds and go home rather than try do leg presses, leg extensions and machine hack squats with little weights just to entertain myself.

2) It lacks variety – this comment makes my head spin! I mean for god’s sake working out is not a TV game show where you want to see new contestants everytime. If variety in a mass building routine was most important, then this should work great- doing weight training for one week, next week onto Pilates, and then switching over to one week of Tae-Bo? That looks like a lot of variety to me! Look, again it’s not about constantly chopping and changing exercises from time to time. You need to get good with the basic exercises before adding further exercises! After all in school you did not move from one class to another till you cleared your exams, so why should new exercises be added if someone still sucks at the old ones.

3) There aren’t many isolation exercises involved- I remember reading an article featuring the late great Sonny Schmidt. He said that everytime he saw a skinny beginner do flyes and cable crossovers, he felt like grabbing the guy by his neck and telling him that forget about these exercises and bench as if your life depends on it! Honestly that is one great advice that I feel we should all use in our own training. Isolation exercises do have a role to play in mass and strength building, but only after a certain stage in your development.

Yep, those preacher curls worked fine for you mister

And please don’t try to explain to me how your bench press will not cross 100 pounds unless you add more than one triceps exercise to strengthen your ti's for better benching. At that stage you just need to bench more regularly to help your muscle motor units learn the movement better to be able to lift more. Yes once you cross 200 pounds adding more than 1 triceps exercise might help. 

4) None of the muscle groups are being worked hard- so they told you that to make a muscle group grow to its maximum as beginner you must do atleast 4 exercises for it, right? Ok then try this- do 3 months of 3 exercises for each muscle group and compare that with 3 months of only one exercise per muscle group. You will surely see that by doing only one compound exercise you will be able to lift more and will grow better. Why? It will be so because by doing only one compound exercise you will be able to lift heavier for better muscle recruitment. 

Understand one thing, for the muscle to work harder you need to subject it to heavier loads rather than just high number of exercises! The idea is to try and get stronger rather than make training into an aerobic workout. Of course you don’t have to stick to only one exercise per muscle group, you can do upto 2 exercises for bigger muscles like legs, back, but I would be reluctant to add more than that.

5) The muscle groups are not being hit from all angles- oh my god! When did this become a geometry class? As a beginner a major compound movement with heavy weights will work your muscles hard from all angles and help you to grow. This “hit muscles from all angles” is honestly a concept that really does not work best for beginners. As a beginner stick to working each muscle group hard and you will do great. Leave working a muscle from different angles to the more advanced trainees.

Keep it simple and get strong and big

I hope that by now you are convinced to do routines that are more suited to you as a beginner. Remember that as a beginner your goal should be to get stronger, eat more, and develop a healthier lifestyle where you sleep well, keep stress levels low, etc. As you get advanced, your training will also get more advanced, but initially keep things simple, and get very good at doing simple things regularly. 

Now how about a low budget home routine, where only basic weights are required? If you are a beginner training at home with nothing but basic weights and very little time, then I have a routine for you. Try out this routine-

Do the following workouts A and B alternately on 3 alternate days a week

Workout A
Weighted push ups or floor press      3-4 sets of 10 reps
Barbell rows                                    3-4 sets of 6 reps
Zerker squats                                  3-4 sets of 5 reps

Workout B
Military press                                  3-4 sets of 6 reps
Deadlift                                           3-4 sets of 5 reps

Rest about 2-3 minutes between sets and repeat.

So stop looking for complex programs that will leave you more tired and confused than big and strong! Simplify your training to gain more. You will be glad you did so when you reach higher levels like intermediate and advanced. Learn to follow what mahatma Gandhi used to preach-“simple living and high thinking” or in your case simple programs and great results!

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